At Least You Have A Soul
By James Tressler
“A fool and his Bitcoin are soon over-rated.”
The barman Cem said that. The bar was nearly empty. Nowadays a lot of bars were empty. It was too expensive, what with inflation at nearly 12 percent in the past few months. And it was Ramazan, the holy month, which meant fasting.
“Over-rated.” It was an English word he, Recep, and the barman Cem used. They liked to use a lot of English slang, buzzwords, catchphrases, to sort of bounce them back and forth like a hackey sack. Other favorites included, “Unbelievable!” “Epic” and the always serviceable “What the fuck, man!”
“What is the Bitcoin at now?” Cem asked.
It had dipped a little, they both knew that. But it was still worth thousands of dollars, and its mythic rise gave Istanbullus everywhere ecstatic shivers. Cem was one of those lucky few, the proud possessors. He owned a single bit coin, which he’d purchased while researching a college essay on cryptocurrencies a few years back.
Cem, a Black Sea Turk with grey hair and lively eyes, whistled and clicked his tongue after Recep had checked his phone for the latest update.
“Allah, allah!” the barman said. “So have you cashed yours in yet, abi?”
Recep nodded and smiled. He smiled a lot. He was just 20, with a light complexion and smiling blue eyes. He was popular with his university classmates. You could say he had a certain Marty McFly deftness, an alert look and easy smile that inspired confidence. He often ditched classes – was doing so now, as a matter of fact – to hang out at his local in Kadıköy.
“Öyle me? How much?”
Recep told him the amount.
“Unbelievable!” The Black Sea barman went into a stream of the lively, high-pitched Turkish native to his region, ending with “What the fuck, man!”
The Bitcoin was a kind of secret between them, although it was the kind of secret that almost all of Recep’s close friends and associates knew about. Turks are gossips at heart, especially those living in the big city.
“Good, now you can afford to lend me a few thousand,” Cem said presently. He went to the bar and returned with a fresh pint of Bomonte for Recep and a small one for himself. They clinked glasses and toasted the young man’s fortune.
It was true. Recep had been holding out on selling the Bitcoin for a long time. But that week, with the lira hitting a fresh low against the dollar, he felt the time was right. He found an online app and was able to make the sale and have the money transferred to his Turkish bank account very easily. The account balance, when he first saw it, almost caused him to feint. It wasn’t such a tremendous amount of money, mind, but for Recep, all of twenty years old and who still lived with his parents and who had never had a job, it was indeed a fortune.
A little while later, the bar began to pick up. Not a big crowd, but at least a few tables of couples. They watched a football match on the big TV set in the back room. There were glass windows that looked out into a park, where street cats roamed in search of an evening dinner.
Recep went and sat in the back room for awhile. He was on his fourth beer and feeling happy. In his mind his newfound fortune danced in his head like sugar plum fairies. Every now and again, he found himself laughing out loud, and some people eyed him curiously. But mostly everyone was watching the match so they didn’t notice him.
Presently, Recep noticed a young woman staring at him. She was about his age, with dark, Persian features. Her long, slender legs were coiled around the chair, and she was dressed in a smart black dress. Her hair was curly, with a few blue highlights that Recep found intriguing.
Recep smiled his easy smile, and she returned it. Signaling Cem, who winked at the bar, Recep went and got two more pints and brought them over to the girl’s table. She responded to his confidence, and nobody seemed to notice. Before long they fell into conversation, their murmured voices drifting beneath the hollowed-out roars of the football match.
The girl’s name was Marrika. Her family was from Baku, in Azerbeijan. Her father owned a construction company there, and Marrika had come to Istanbul to study. She spoke Turkish, English, Persian as well as Azeri.
“And a bit of Arabic,” she added, smiling.
“Wow!” Recep communicated this information to Cem up at the bar. “Unbelievable!” he exclaimed loyally. Privately, while Recep had been buying the drinks, his barman friend had looked at the girl and whispered “Taş gibi!” which means “Like a stone!” It was the Turk’s expression used when one encounters a really hot girl.
“Taş gibi!” Recep echoed.
Now, sitting with the girl Marrika, Recep felt high on life. He couldn’t have felt any higher he believed.
Marrika told her story, about how living in Istanbul was hard. She was having problems at the university, and her parents wanted her to return to Baku. They felt Istanbul was a bad influence. Their daughter was hanging out with the wrong people, “didn’t have her priorities straight,”.
“Sounds like my parents,” Recep commiserated. “Cheers.”
The ordered more drinks and talked until long after the match had ended. Most of the people cleared out, grumbling over the drink prices, and home to have late dinners.
Later, Recep paid the bill (tipping Cem generously). He wanted to invite Marikka over to his apartment, but he knew his mother would still be up. They were both feeling drunk, so they just walked together in the park outside the bar. In the darkness they kissed, made out for awhile. They had already “added” each other on Facebook and What’s App, and agreed to meet the next day.
The girl said she lived with a Turkish family several blocks away. “Do you have any money for a taxi?” Recep asked.
Seeing that the girl didn’t, he went to an ATM and withdrew 50 liras, handing 20 over to the girl. A yellow taxi was coming up the hill, so after kissing once more, the two wished each other good night and the girl disappeared in the taxi.
The next day Recep woke up, hungover but still buzzing from the night before. He had tens of thousands of lira, after all, and he had this exciting new girl in his life. Marrika. He could still smell her perfume, and her curly black hair, and it made him happy.
There was the question about what to do with his money. His parents had advised him to just leave it in the bank, or better yet, to convert it to dollars. He had tried that actually, but recently the banks were holding tightly on to dollars and had only offered to give him half of his money in that currency. With a young man’s impatience, and fearing some hidden trick, Recep had insisted on having it all in lira.
After breakfast, Recep dressed. He planned to go school that day. Finals were coming up, and he wanted to save his few remaining absences for the last week.
He stopped at the ATM, just wanting to have a look at his account. It would be a pleasing start to his day.
Typing in his PIN, Recep waited … He gasped ---
The money was gone.
A frantic, almost diabolical morning ensued. Recep’s usual smile vanished like a ghost, as he tried to first navigate the touch screen commands on his mobile, to get in touch with a bank agent. After numerous times being put on hold, switched to various departments, it was soon discovered the money had been withdrawn at precisely 5:20 a.m. A technician was dispatched to the ATM. The technician found that a crude electronic device was ingeniously installed in the machine, and that the device had copied Recep’s PIN number, etc. It was, as Recep was soon to find out, a quite common occurrence. Pickpocketing, 21st Century style.
All of this was so much gibberish to our young Recep. In a matter of minutes, of seconds, his whole world had come crashing down. Things such as this might happen to other people, but not to him. (You might be tempted to tease him with a “What the fuck, man!” at this moment, but I wouldn’t advise it, not in the mind-frame he was in at that moment.)
The bank employees went to the ATM camera, and were able to freeze the time of the early morning transaction. The figure was covered, wearing a long jacket and a hat. It appeared to be a female.
Frozen in disbelief, Recep just stared at the image. He knew exactly who the thief was.
“Allah, Allah!” Cem, the barman cried, after hearing the story. He was genuinely shocked, and felt bad for Recep. “Is it really possible?”
Together, they went over the details of the previous night. They each speculated on the girl, and how this all might have happened. They concluded that the girl was probably lying about her true identity. She could be anyone. At this moment, especially with Recep’s cash in hand, she could be anywhere!
Which is precisely what the police had said. This was after several hours at the local precinct, where Recep’s statement had been taken. The police were not able to offer much reassurance.
“Unbelievable!” Cem said, and Recep just nodded. They said many other things, mostly unprintable, about the girl. Ah, this world was full of thieves. You could not trust anybody. There was no justice – no humanity – to be found anywhere.
What haunted the two men – older and younger – was the girl, Marikka or whatever her name was.
“Medusa!” Recep said bitterly.
“Medusa!” Cem agreed. “Taş gibi, my ass! She really does turn men to stone!”
“I’d like to stone her,” Recep said. But then he recovered himself and tried to smile, the smile people liked. But it was very hard.
“I should never have sold that Bitcoin,” he moaned, shaking his head wearily. Why had he sold it? It was doing just fine where he’d had it before, swimming in pretty little cyberspace, dancing like sugar plums in his handsome head. Why had he sold out? Now it was all gone, and some girl was off spending the money – his money – in the streets and shops of Istanbul. He pictured her now, in fashionable Nişantışı or perhaps Bağdat Caddesi, trying on a sleek new Armani dress, having an expensive dinner, all on him. And laughing, he supposed. Yes, laughing all the way.
“Is there anything I can do?” Cem asked sympathetically. “You need a little cash to get by?”
Recep shook his head.
“Well here, have a beer on me.” It was evening now, and an ice cold pint of Bomonte shined in the lights.
“What am I going to do?” Recep asked.
“I don’t know, abi.” Cem shook his head. That’s all they could do was just shake their heads.
“A fool and his money – “ The old saying was buzzing in Recep’s head. A fool and his Bitcoin … That’s right, they were both over-rated.
He raised his glass to Cem.
“Over-rated!” he cried.
“Over-rated!” Cem enjoined, clinking glasses. “Unbelievable! At least you have a soul, right?”
“At least we have a soul.”
Having verified this all-important issue, the two parted ways very much relieved, and checked their Instagram updates.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer, teacher and bewildered dervish. He and his wife Özge live in Istanbul.